When I first sat down to write about my food experiences in Calgary, Alberta I intended to just share why I found the food offerings there to be so unexpected and naturally delicious. But that sounded boring to me and besides, most of you will probably never visit Calgary and, if you do, then the specific restaurants are likely to be long gone. No, instead I want to use Calgary as a case study to share some evolving thoughts I’ve had recently on the new rise of creative urban centers and the crucial role that food and even food tourism has played in this new shift. I should note, I am a travel writer. I do not normally cover the food industry and certainly not urban development. Some of my thoughts on those issues may seem amateurish because, well, they are. But I feel that owing to my frequent travel around the world, I’m in a somewhat unique position to notice these trends from a different point of view and to share what I think it all means.
The New City
A few years ago I noticed a subtle shift in my hometown of Washington, D.C. – it had become suddenly interesting. Don’t get me wrong, I love the District which is why I’ve lived in the region for 17 years. But when I first moved here, the city itself wasn’t the most exciting place in the world. Many restaurants were holdovers from another era when politicians filled the smoky backrooms of steak houses and lobbyists went out for three martini lunches every day. (Both still happen, just not as often.) Not only that, but large swathes of the city had frankly been neglected over the years. While well located, they weren’t places where I felt safe to visit, much less want to spend time in. No, when I first moved to D.C. fresh out of graduate school, most of my contemporaries elected to live in the suburbs of Virginia and Maryland and just commute into the city . There they could rent a reasonably priced condo and enjoy the leafy benefits that only a suburb can provide. I’m not sure exactly when this all changed, but it did. Working from home even when I had a 9-5 job, I certainly don’t have my finger on the pulse of the city, but several years ago I noticed that the D.C. I had first moved to had begun to change, and definitely for the better.
Here’s what I think happened. The generation after mine, or even very young Gen-Xers, didn’t want to live in the ‘burbs. They didn’t want the daily hassle of a commute and as younger folks, they wanted the social engagement that only a city can provide. When D.C. didn’t offer exactly what they wanted, they created it for themselves. Young urban professionals began buying new-build condos and townhouses in less-desirable areas, which in turn prompted more development, which also brought along everything one needs with a new community: shops, cafes and restaurants. Neighborhoods that quite literally had been burning garbage fires are now home to dog boutiques and more coffee shops than should probably exist. Now, there’s a whole conversation to be had here about the societal impacts of this shift but, to be honest, I don’t want to talk about that today. Sorry, but my focus here is on food and tourism.
This new urban center isn’t relegated to only Washington, D.C. Over the last few years of traveling to all corners of the planet, I’ve noticed that in many cities this has been the trend. Not in already-prosperous cities per se, but many second tier or marginal cities. From Ghent to Charlotte and yes, Calgary, a shift has been occurring and it’s one of the most exciting global developments that no one is talking about.
The Importance of a New Food Culture
Other than those intrepid yuppies electing to move into city centers, the real drivers of this change in the world’s cities has been led by the culinary sciences. Food and drink has been at the heart of these developments for many reasons. Culinary entrepreneurs were able to move into these less-desirable areas in the first place because the rents were low, allowing chefs, bakers and even distillers to open businesses that ordinarily wouldn’t be possible. What they did in the process was to create social hubs. Out of the ether they created neighborhoods where people wanted to be, to spend time with friends and family and this, more than anything else, has had a cascading effect. While I was still in graduate school, I spent the summer in Washington working at an internship. The area of town where the NGO was located was not a good one. In fact, my boss told me to never be there at night and to be careful even during the day. Random gunshots were not abnormal and it wasn’t a fun place to be. Today, that same neighborhood has a trendy new name (Barracks Row) and is home to not only some of the hottest restaurants in town, but stores that only a good yuppie could love, from dog boutiques to artisan bakers and more frozen yogurt shops than the market can probably handle. Along with this comes new apartment and condo buildings, the purchase and refurbishment of older homes, new landscaping and design along the sidewalks and a pride of ownership that did not exist before. Yes, we can debate the pros and cons of these developments (where did the former tenants go?) but selfishly, I am thrilled with the changes because it makes my city a much more pleasant place to live. As I’ve already mentioned, this phenomenon is global and it seems that nearly every place I visit tourism officials spend hours telling me about all of the exciting changes, almost entirely led by the food industry.
What it Means For Tourism
While these developments are fantastic for locals who call the cities and neighborhoods home, they’re also fantastic for the tourism industry. Many of these cities had little on which to hang their proverbial hats in years past. Sure, Calgary is fine, but a day is more than enough time to see the sights for which it prides itself. Now though, it’s home to an exploding food and beer culture, creating tourism opportunities that frankly didn’t exist even a few years ago. I spent an entire day enjoying a variety of food-related tours, all in the effort to get a crash course on these developments in the city. Joining the company Calgary Food Tours, I had the opportunity to explore one of those “new” neighborhoods and to sample the delicious culinary experiences offered to locals and visitors alike. The fact that Calgary even has a food tour company that offers a multitude of options should be proof enough that something is happening. Food tours have indeed popped up all over the world, even in places as unlikely as Calgary. I took my first “real” food tour just a few years ago in Paris. At that time, only a handful of major cities even offered food tours – they were the odd man out in the tourism world. But since then food tourism has exploded to the point where it’s hard to find a city without some sort of culinary tourism experiences on offer. The interest is there because the modern traveler appreciates cultural experiences more than ever before but it’s also thanks to a deeper appreciation of food than has ever existed. Cable TV is partly to thank, but so are those new restaurants led by young and creative chefs in our own hometowns. Most of us are being exposed to tastes that we’ve never experienced before. We didn’t know that eating could be so enjoyable frankly, and it’s led to our own appreciation of the culinary sciences on a global scale. It’s a good time to be interested in food for sure, and those of us who love to travel are one of the many beneficiaries.
Two years ago I was in the teeny-tiny town of Pittsboro, North Carolina – population 4,000 people. There I toured a distillery creating some of the most unique beverages I’ve ever seen, I visited an artisanal doughnut shop with amazing pastries and enjoyed other restaurants led by corporate dropouts all pursuing their dreams. That’s amazing but it’s also really strange. But that’s where we as a society are moving and I for one couldn’t be more excited. A combination of the Great Recession and the infectious optimism of the Millennials have had global ramifications the likes of which no one ever expected. Even in the U.S., where working until we die is a virtue, more and more people are electing to follow their dreams and passions instead of just punching a time card. What that has led to is an urban Renaissance, a rebirth of our city centers from coast to coast breathing life back into these once-again vibrant communities. Benefiting locals and tourists, it’s an exciting time to be alive for sure and I for one can’t wait to see what other changes this mindset will eventually lead to.